"Go back to the second verse," J. Cole told his DJ late into his hour-long set Thursday night at Baltimore Soundstage. "Y'all asked for this, so you gotta rock with me."
Moments earlier, his microphone had malfunctioned during "Chris Tucker," a slithering, Timbaland-esque track from his recent "Truly Yours 2" EP. He bristled at first, but smiled once he realized the sold-out crowd was reciting the lines verbatim, even without the beat. Fans motioned with their hands that the 28-year-old rapper from Fayetteville, N.C., needed to complete the song with a working mic. He obliged and the crowd responded like the song was new.
It was that kind of show. J. Cole made it clear from the opening song that he wasn't here to run through his radio hits (although a few — "Nobody's Perfect," "In the Morning" and "Power Trip" — were included, too), but rather to thank the fans that had "been there since day one" with an invigorated performance of true-fan favorites.
J. Cole, who last performed at Baltimore Soundstage in October 2011, was in town for a surprise stop on his "Dollar and a Dream" tour. Details were announced via Soundstage's Twitter on Thursday morning, and fans reportedly waited hours outside of the box office before the $1 tickets went on sale at 4 p.m. To the disappointment of some local high school students, the show was 18+, but the crowd still seemed young overall. There was no wait to get a beer all night.
After a curious DJ warm-up set from 92Q's AJ and hypeman Lil Black (they played Meek Mill's intricate "Dreams and Nightmares" twice in an attempt to quiet, or bludgeon, the cries for Cole), the slender rapper, wearing a black T-shirt and a glistening gold Jesus piece chain, took the stage at 8 p.m.
He took the temperature of the room by performing songs casual fans might not know: "Before I'm Gone," "Back to the Top (Freestyle)" and "Premeditated Murder" from 2010's "Friday Night Lights," "Dreams" from 2009's "The Warm Up." The appreciative crowd responded by reciting each line back to him.
When J. Cole's debut album, "Cole World: The Sideline Story," was released in September 2011, it debuted at No. 1 with 218,000 copies sold, despite not having a huge single on radio. (Break-out single "Work Out" took its time to find its eventual audience.) The surprisingly high sales were a reflection of the rock-solid fanbase Cole had spent years cultivating through touring and mixtape releases.
To his biggest fans, Cole is something of a lyrical savior and respite from rap's romance with hedonism and overindulgence. He is no saint, but Cole often makes it clear in his rhymes that he's aware his actions have consequences. His struggle — of being bi-racial and lower middle class, growing up without a father and having college loans — has made him relatable to a wide-ranging audience. From the crowd's reaction Thursday night, plenty of diehards are still captivated by J. Cole's talented-but-regular-guy persona.
He only performed two songs from his upcoming second album, "Born Sinner," the embrace-your-flaws motivator "Crooked Smile" and "Power Trip," the current rap single of the year and the closing song of the set. It was wise to withhold new material: Much of "Born Sinner" is a headphones album that focuses on Cole's battle of staying true to his down-to-earth self and giving into the temptations that come with being a rap star. Its themes are ambivalent and knotty, while the music backdrops are often dank and melodramatic -- not exactly the material you want for a victory lap of a concert.